Running online rehearsals.
Running an online rehearsal was something that was totally alien to most conductors and music teachers a year ago (although some educators, such as Michelle Rose, have been running successful online rehearsals long before it was ‘trendy’). As music educators, at the start of the pandemic, we were thrown into delivering lessons online and, by and large, it feels like the community have embraced this and become comfortable teaching individuals and small groups online. However, when it comes to taking a whole ensemble virtually, the narrative from some educators doesn’t seem to be as positive. A lot of this feeling is rooted in the fact that virtual ensembles feel starkly different to real life ones, even more so than the comparison to the difference between an online and in-person one-to-one lesson.
I think a lot of people’s initial expectations were that there would still be a possibility of some sort of synchronous playing online. Latency issues however largely prevent this. I have had a lot of people ask which programme is best to try and perform together as ensemble but whether it’s Zoom or Google Classroom or one of the many other video conferencing platforms, it is not so much of a question of what platform you use but the fact that every participant’s internet connection will vary, preventing any sort of meaningful synchronous rehearsal.
It’s worth mentioning that there are platforms, such as Jamkazam, that offer low-latency opportunities to play together online but these programmes are often limited in terms of ensemble size, the equipment that the students own, and the fact that still need a pretty good internet connection for it to work.
Here are some thoughts on ways to expand how we deliver our rehearsals online:
1. The ‘Silent Rehearsal’
What has become known as the ‘Silent Rehearsal model’ is now probably the most common way of running a virtual rehearsal. The idea is simple and effective: every participant is muted during the rehearsal and the ensemble leader shares their sound, and the ensemble play along to a backing track of the piece that they are learning. While there are some obvious limitations with this, it is a super effective way of getting everyone playing something in the first place. This method can absolutely form the backbone of your rehearsal, however there are some other techniques we can use to complement this model to make sure our students get as much out of online rehearsals as possible.
2. Assessing student progress
One of the biggest flaws in using the silent rehearsal model exclusively is that we have no idea whether students are improving or actually learning what we are trying to teach- in a completely ‘silent’ rehearsal, all we can do is take their word for it (or a virtual Zoom ‘thumbs up’). Students unmuting and performing their part for the rest of the ensemble and also having an individual student playing with the rest of the muted participants playing along should be encouraged from day one of your online rehearsals. The sooner you can integrate this and normalise it, the more likely you will have students willing to perform to their peers.
Using programmes such as Bandlab is another really good way of hearing what is actually going with the members of your ensemble. Bandlab is a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that can be accessed on any device by following a link sent out by the ensemble leader. It can either be used for individual assignments for students, for example the trombones are asked to record and submit 16 bars of a piece that is being worked on, or to layer everyone’s individual parts and make a recording that sounds like the whole band playing together. Not only is this a great way to hear your players’ understanding of the repertoire but it’s also good opportunity to teach your students how to use some basic music technology. A massive perk is that Bandlab is also completely free. Another programme worth having a look at for this purpose is Soundtrap.
A lot of musicians, especially full-time performers, have more time on their hands than normal at the minute and taking an online rehearsal by yourself every week can be pretty exhausting. Why not have a guest come in and take a rehearsal, or part of a rehearsal? This works out well for everyone, giving your students the opportunity to learn from someone else and giving you the chance to rest while learning some new rehearsal techniques from someone else.
We’ve all seen it. That student who is draped over the comfiest sofa in the house or pretty much lying down on their bed. It’s fair to say that with every student now learning in the comfort of their own home, posture has taken a backseat in peoples’ minds. As well as reminding your participants of the importance of posture it can be fun to incorporate some stretches and movement into your rehearsal. Going one step further, with one of my older (mid to late teens) ensembles we had a yoga instructor as a guest to take us through some yoga flows before we began playing- despite a few initial raised eyebrows, the kids loved it.
5. Keeping the community
Chances are, if you run an ensemble, your members aren’t there exclusively for the music. The reason any of us enjoy playing in an ensemble is the sense of community and camaraderie that it brings. If we’re not careful this can easily get lost online, especially if we’re only using the silent rehearsal model. Encouraging members to feel comfortable to unmute themselves whenever they have something to say is a must. Having a plan for a rehearsal is always useful but if the rehearsal degenerates into a chat between members every so often, this is absolutely fine- it is, after all, what would have in ‘real life’ too.
Especially with children, having other non-musical activities planned will really help in keeping the sense of community that keep people coming back to your ensembles. Over the past months we’ve held online film nights, listening parties, and quiz nights (written and planned by the students) to complement to our musical rehearsals, keeping students connected with one another and bringing a much-needed sense of normality to what we do.
Online rehearsals are difficult and tiring, much more so that taking a rehearsal in real life. Don’t feel the pressure to be delivering content constantly for every minute of the rehearsal, it’s just not sustainable. Simply allowing your students a chance to connect with you and each other as well as giving them an opportunity to play some quality repertoire along the way should be considered a resounding success while delivering ensembles online.